Law enforcement agencies disrupt prolific ransomware group LockBit

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LONDON — Law-enforcement agencies have infiltrated and disrupted LockBit, arresting two people involved with the prolific ransomware syndicate that has extracted $120 million from thousands of victims around the world, British, American and European officials said Tuesday.

Britain’s National Crime Agency said it led an international operation targeting LockBit, which provides ransomware as a service to so-called affiliates who infect victim networks with the computer-crippling malware and negotiate ransoms.

The operation resulted in the arrests of two people in Poland and Ukraine, officials said at a joint press conference. The Justice Department, meanwhile, unsealed indictments against two more people, both Russian nationals. Authorities said they gained “comprehensive access” to LockBit’s systems by taking control of the gang’s infrastructure and seizing their source code.

“We have hacked the hackers,” Graeme Biggar, director general of the National Crime Agency, said at a news conference in London. “LockBit has been locked out. ”

Hours before the announcement, the front page of LockBit’s dark-web leak site was replaced with the words “this site is now under control of law enforcement,” alongside the flags of the U.K., the U.S. and several other nations.

The message said the website was under the control of the U.K.’s National Crime Agency “working in close cooperation with the FBI and the international law enforcement task force, Operation Cronos.”

It says it is an “ongoing and developing operation” that also involves agencies from Germany, France, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, among others, including Europol.

The announcement brings to five the number of people the U.S. has indicted since the the operation began. Three Russians have previously been indicted, with two of those taken into custody, one in Canada and one in the U.S.

“Today we have turned the tables on these cybercriminals,” U.S. Attorney Philip Sellinger said at the news conference.

Authorities said they also seized U.S.-based servers that the gang used to organize and transfer victim data, and gained access to nearly 1,000 potential decryption tools.

LockBit, which has been operating since 2019, has been the most prolific ransomware syndicate two years running. The group accounted for 23% of the nearly 4,000 attacks globally last year in which ransomware gangs posted data stolen from victims to extort payment, according to the cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks.

A rare offensive cyber-operation for the U.K. crime agency, the operation aimed to steal all of LockBit’s data and then destroy its infrastructure, causing a “significant major degradation” of the cybercrime threat.

LockBit is dominated by Russian speakers and does not attack former Soviet nations. The syndicate provides clients with the platform and the malware to conduct attacks and collect ransoms.

Officials suggested that LockBit could have hundreds of members but there’s no evidence that a nation state such as Russia is behind the syndicate, Biggar said.

“These are criminals,” he said, although the lack of a Russian crackdown indicates that Moscow tolerates the gang’s activity.

It has been linked to attacks on the U.K.’s Royal Mail, Britain’s National Health Service, airplane manufacturer Boeing, international law firm Allen and Overy and China’s biggest bank, ICBC.

Last June, U.S. federal agencies released an advisory that attributed about 1,700 ransomware attacks in the United States since 2020 to LockBit and said victims included “municipal governments, county governments, public higher education and K-12 schools, and emergency services.”

Ransomware is the costliest and most disruptive form of cybercrime, crippling local governments, court systems, hospitals and schools as well as businesses. It is difficult to combat as most gangs are based in former Soviet states and out of reach of Western justice. Law enforcement agencies have scored some recent successes against ransomware gangs, most notably the FBI’s operation against the Hive syndicate. But the criminals regroup and rebrand.

Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre has previously warned that ransomware remains one of the biggest cyber threats facing the U.K. and urges people and organizations not to pay ransoms if they are targeted.

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